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Why Black ‘Game of Thrones’ Fans Need #DemThrones

It’s more than a parallel fandom and a safe space — it’s the most vital conversation about the show out there

Without Black Twitter, there’s no way I could watch Game of Thrones.

I hated it from the first episode, which introduces us to the Dothraki, a clan of noble savages — brawny, brown-skinned, sex-mad and violent — whose leader takes the show’s protagonist, his new, lily-white, teenage wife, down to the seaside at sunset and rapes her. I hated that cold-ass, dark, stanky old stone castle filled with gloomy people in oversized fur coats. I hated how the first episode ends with an incestuous queen and her pretty-boy twin brother pushing a curious child out of a window. Game of Thrones was yet more white-people shit — a show not made for fans like me.

Four seasons later, Black Twitter urged me to reconsider. Their Thrones memes were next-level funny. They made me curious about what I was missing. Hell, maybe I was wrong. So I tried it again — and this time, I loved the show. I binged every episode I could, and I’ve watched excitedly ever since.

I just needed a black doorman to let me into the club.

Fandoms are strange and curious things. They’re packed with passionate people bound together by a common love of a fictional creation. But many high-profile fandoms have long been predominantly male and pale, which skews the conversation. Not to mention, because fans are often antagonistic with one another about the thing they all love, they generally bring frictions from the real world into their fandom. Which means fandoms can often feel as toxic as real-world politics, but in a microcosm — and more largely, can be unwelcoming to those of us who don’t quite “fit the mold.”

Hence, the hashtag #DemThrones. It offers Black Twitter a unique way to enjoy Game of Thrones as part of a parallel fandom. One that’s by us, for us.

A parallel fandom isn’t a form of self-segregation. It’s a healthy development in online fan culture. “Safe spaces” are frequent targets of online mockery; “snowflake” is the preferred pejorative for folks who wish to be left alone. But such dismissals misunderstand the value of having your own space in a world that denies you any welcome spot in the mainstream. This is what motivates Black Twitter to use hashtags like #DemThrones: It’s a space for black geeks and fantasy-loving blerds to safely nerd out — to feel welcome and heard.

More than two decades ago, when George R.R. Martin’s fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire first debuted, fans gathered on early web forums and listservs to discuss their theories; a favorite was to analyze theories about Jon Snow’s true identity (which has been revealed on the show, but not yet in the books). These days, Thrones fan theories are a vital part of the discourse — they pop up on Reddit and are then analyzed on online entertainment sites and in legacy publications like Harper’s Bazaar. People simply can’t stop talking about GoT. Online fan spaces have helped to turn the series into a cultural phenomenon: 17.4 million viewers watched the season eight premiere. That’s 1 million more than the premiere of last season. Part of that success — and HBO seems to know it, as evidenced by their recent promotional usage of the hashtag #DemThrones — is due to the fact that their show wouldn’t be nearly as hot, or as cool, without its legion of meme-making, live-tweeting black fans.

That fandom was seemingly born on May 13, 2012, with the following tweet from @TheREALHeemDee:

A few days later, people started using it in earnest, taking a cue from the podcast FiyaStarter, which had inspired the hashtag:

It’s been a wild and controversial run ever since, complete with a high-profile spat over who created it. Early media coverage, like this 2016 explainer on Business Insider, stated that “many are missing out on the best Thrones commentary the internet has to offer. Presenting: #DemThrones.” This kind of framing rubs me the wrong way, even though the writer is black. It feels like recommending cultural tourism, akin to the old idea of “slumming,” when white people toured iconic black spaces of the Harlem Renaissance wishing to experience the cool as it was happening. With #DemThrones, a caveat needs to be added: Outsiders are welcome to peer in — it’s public, after all — but the fans who make the hashtag what it is would prefer it stays as black and brown as the Unsullied and sacred and untouched as the godswood of Winterfell.

No offense, Jon Snow, but you know nothing, y’all.

Over on Black Twitter, Thrones chatter gets loud. The commentary is unapologetically black, meant to speak in a language expressed in a different pitch and syntax. #DemThrones is freshly populated each week, kind of like a pop-up beauty parlor or a free-floating barbershop. It’s a low-key “just-us” location that momentarily exists to host a convo spoken in online blackness.

This is how the Atlantic’s Jemele Hill found her way into the wintry epic of swords, sex and dragons. Like me, it took multiple attempts for her to get into it. It’s fair to say that we — black people, that is — aren’t known for our appreciation of bleak and frozen landscapes or the taciturn people who live there. “I’m not a huge fan of the fantasy genre,” Hill admits. After her friends begged her to watch it, though, she gave Game of Thrones a shot — “but I got through two episodes and ditched it. There were too many characters.”

Now, each week, she live-tweets the show with the #DemThrones hashtag. What changed? “I thought the writing, character and plot development were superb,” she says. “The creators also seemed to buck the traditional rules of series television. They killed important characters without hesitation. They even managed to make you see the humanity in characters who, at the heart of it, were truly awful human beings. They also were fearless when it came to exploring sexuality and misogyny. They made a show that wasn’t dependent on one character. It was dependent on an ideal.”

Hill sees herself in a few notable members of the Thrones cast. She relates to “Arya’s sense of justice, to Brienne’s fight to be seen as an equal and to Tyrion’s thirst for knowledge. I’m not saying that I have a [murder] list like Arya, but I understand her fierce protective instincts. As someone who has crafted a 20-year career in a male-dominated profession, I can obviously relate to [Brienne’s] fight for respect and equality. And like Tyrion, I drink and I know things.”

Black Twitter is a huge reason Hill now loves the show, she says. “I love to laugh. The jokes and the memes are truly hysterical, and it feels good to see the culture take something over that wasn’t necessarily designed with them in mind.” Black Twitter, expecting to be excluded by default, has adjusted a cultural phenomenon, altered it, made it blacker by necessity. “The fact is, black people create all the popular trends,” Hill explains. “We make things hot. We drive culture. Game of Thrones didn’t need black fans to be a popular show, but it did need black fans to be a hot show. There’s a difference. It’s not easy to make fantasy and sci-fi look cool, but black people have given Game of Thrones a coolness factor that has only amplified [its] popularity.”

This past week, Kirsten Baptiste had a tweet go viral on #DemThrones with a joke about Arya Stark finally getting to wrinkle some sheets instead of snatching faces. “I love seeing that black folks really do understand certain jokes even more than any other person on the outside. The show is exceedingly white, and it makes me happy that we can still put our own stank, so to speak, on whatever we want to at any given moment,” she says. “Black people will definitely give you a sense of soul behind every single thing they decide to turn their attention to.”

Baptiste’s favorite character is the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, whom she lovingly calls Tyrone. “Something about him being in a world that doesn’t understand him as a person internally and externally resonates with me.”

Angelica Westry, who tweets as @MadameSlay, says Black Twitter and #DemThrones are absolutely integral to her experience of Game of Thrones. Westry was introduced to #DemThrones by Jamie Broadnax, founder of the site BlackGirlNerds, who was live-tweeting an episode. “When I went under that tag, I was amazed and blown away by the amount of POC nerds/Game of Thrones fans tweeting and participating in discussions on the show,” Westry says. “A lot of the tweets were hilarious and relatable. Comparing certain characters, stories or interactions with situations or phrases only black people or POCs would get just elevated my enjoyment of the show even more.”

“Black Twitter has become so important to my enjoyment of a lot of things,” she continues. “When you have a community of people like you, who look like you and talk like you and get your jokes, especially if you’re a minority in a mostly white fandom, it makes you feel like you have an entire group of people who get you.”

A good GoT example: “If I say something like, ‘Missandei knows she needs to put that hair in a protective style for that desert heat,’ Black Twitter will know exactly what I mean. It’s almost like watching your favorite show with a group of your loudest, funniest, craziest friends. Having that parallel can really make a difference in how you digest the show and the subtle nuances of characters/storylines, especially if it’s a character of color.”

Westry knows what it’s like to be a part of a fandom that doesn’t feel so inviting. Before Game of Thrones, back when she was a teenager, she was into Sailor Moon — but the fandom “was fairly dismissive of me as a black female fan. I always felt like I was an invisible part of the fandom. I didn’t really have any other black girl fans to connect with and discuss or fangirl over the show with.” It felt “lonely,” she says. Still, it wasn’t as bad as her experiences in comic book fandoms around the same time. “You know how incredibly toxic it is toward women and POC: racism, misogyny, homophobia, the whole nine yards. The same with most video-game fandoms.”

Again, on the flip side: “In the GoT fandom, I have people like me, who get me, who understand my jokes, who can understand what I mean when I complain about a lack of diversity. I’m not just shrugged off or given the ‘Dora blinks’ [look] of incomprehension. The GoT fandom is much more open and welcoming to people of different backgrounds and opinions, etc. Except the book-verse [A Song of Ice and Fire] fandom. That’s a horse of another color, and they’re definitely a lot less inviting than the TV-verse fans. Lol!”

She hopes it lasts. Just like in Harlem, gentrifiers have begun to show up and disrupt the natural dynamic in #DemThrones. “HBO has even started using #DemThrones, and the discussions/jokes meant for us started being penetrated by wypipo who wanted to cut in or tear down or belittle the things we had to say,” Westry says.

All of which is to say, #DemThrones is ours — and ours alone. This is an important fact, actually. Because when you’re a fan of a show that features a pale blonde woman who’s worshipped as the anointed savior of a mass of enslaved brown people whom she frees from their chains and bondage like a quasi-medieval Abe Lincoln, you need Black Twitter to make that shit funny.